Remembering Cinematographer Gordon Willis, Who 'Changed the Way Movies Look'

UPDATED: Willis photographed Francis Ford Coppola’s "The Godfather" trilogy and Woody Allen’s "Annie Hall."
Everett Collection

Fellow cinematographers and the Hollywood community are remembering the life and visual style of legendary director of photography Gordon Willis, whose credits include Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Willis died May 18 in North Falmouth, Mass., due to complications from cancer. He was 82.

"Gordon was one of the absolute giants,” said American Society of Cinematographers president Richard Crudo. “He not only changed the way movies look, he changed the way the world looks at movies. With the release of The Godfather in 1972, he made everything we now accept as superlative cinematography possible. His further achievements were equally remarkable and his influence over subsequent generations of cinematographers will continue for all time. He will be sorely missed."

"There is no greater influence or inspiration in my life as a cinematographer than that of Gordon Willis, ASC," Oscar winning cinematographer turned director Wally Pfister told The Hollywood Reporter. "His exceptionally bold lighting choices. The careful composition and movement of his camera. His choice of intelligent and thought provoking material and the Directors he collaborated with. Gordon has left us with an incredible body of work that will live on to inspire filmmakers and audiences while acting as a reminder of the critical role dramatic lighting plays in guiding a narrative to its highest visual level. Oh yes,  and he was a New Yorker too."

"I had the good fortune of meeting Gordon and working with him every day for one year while I was an assistant cameraman in the early 1960s," Owen Roizman (The Exorcist, The French Connection),a recipient of the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, told THR. "It was a time that I cherish with fond memories. I learned many things from Gordon, both professionally and personally. All cinematographers owe him a great debt of gratitude for his teaching us to overcome our fears and be willing to take chances. He was a true pioneer, and we all learned new ways to see and practice our cinematography. You will find samples of his philosophies in so many people's work even today, which is a great tribute to his innovativeness, boldness, and artistry. He truly shot from his heart, and tossed aside any heretofore accepted rules. One of the reasons he was able to do this was because he had mastered his craft, which allowed him to practice his art. We will all miss him very much."

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Industry vet Bob Fisher wrote the following about Willis, as part of an article that appeared in American Cinemategrapher  in 1998, the year Willis received the ASC's Lifetime Achievement Award: “Willis pioneered such visual storytelling techniques as low-key lighting to establish moods. He allowed windows to blow out, lights to flare, and he underexposed film and used forced processing to alter the look and mood of scenes.

“Willis was on the leading edge of a New Wave of cinematographers who were changing the art form in radical ways. In The Godfather, he selectively masked Marlon Brando's eyes to conceal his thoughts from the audience.”

In that article, Willis is quoted as saying, "I still can't believe the reactions. People said, 'You can't see his eyes (Brando's).'  Well, you didn't see his eyes in 10 percent of the movie, and there was a reason why. I remember asking, 'Why do you have to see his eyes in that scene? Based on what?' Do you know what the answer was? 'That's the way it was done in Hollywood.' That's not a good enough reason. There were times when we didn't want the audience to see what was going on in there (Brando's eyes), and then suddenly (snaps his fingers), you let them see into his soul for a while."

Reflecting this approach, fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall, gave Willis the nickname "The Prince of Darkness."

Said Stephen Pizzello, editor-in-chief and publisher of American Cinematographer, who is completing work on a book collaboration with Willis: “If there were a Mount Rushmore for cinematographers, Gordon’s features would surely be chiseled into the rock face. I speak to cinematographers working at every level nearly every day, and his name is always mentioned in any discussion of the all-time greats. His signature style — tableau compositions and moody, evocative lighting that often flirted with the dark edge of the exposure curve — was controversial in Gordon’s heyday, but became and remains a key influence on many top cinematographers. His peers regarded him with awe, and his legacy as one of Hollywood’s greatest cameramen is secure.”

PIzzello shared the following quotes from Willis, which will appear in the upcoming book: “I remember shooting the tests of Brando. We put him at a table and I used overhead lighting to make his makeup work. That’s how that whole lighting strategy evolved: sometimes you make decisions in order to make a particular character or setting work. In retrospect, you can romanticize your reasons for doing something, but the bottom line is that I made a decision to light Marlon in a manner that would define his character. Of course, I also had to make the whole movie work that way. The choice was, ‘Okay, I think this lighting will work really well for him, and it will work for the movie.’ Overhead lighting was not a new idea, but it was a new idea to extend it for an entire movie, on everyone and everything. The basis for that approach, though, was to fashion Marlon into Don Corleone.

“Francis and I did have a lot of disagreements while we were shooting the movie, but if it weren’t for him and his vision of what the movie should be, it never would have happened at the right level. He deserves the same amount of credit for Part II, although we had no encumbrances on the sequel — far from it. After the success of The Godfather all of the pressure was swept out the back door, so the second movie was a lot easier to deal with.”

In addition to Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, Willis’ extensive credit list includes a number of Woody Allen comedies, including Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo; and work with director Alan Pakula, including Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men.

In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Willis an honorary Academy Award. He had previously received Oscar nominations for Zelig and The Godfather Part III.

Twitter: @CGinLA